Friday, October 24, 2014

"Dear Committee Members," by Julie Schumacher

I admit I am partial to academic novels, and especially to those that are satires on academic life. Some of the most famous and hilarious examples of these satirical novels are Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim”; David Lodge’s “campus trilogy” of “Changing Places,” “Small World,” and “Nice Work”; and Jane Smiley’s “Moo." I have read each of these, sometimes more than once, with pleasure and laughter. “Dear Committee Members” (Doubleday, 2014), although not quite at the level of the above examples, is a worthy member of their group. In this brief epistolary novel, Julie Schumacher skewers many aspects of academe today. The book consists of a series of recommendation letters written by the increasingly grumpy and beleaguered professor at a third tier university (not very subtly named Payne University) in the American Midwest. Professor Jason Fitger writes reference letters for fellow faculty members and, mostly, students. The letters are for grad school, jobs, internships, fellowships, promotions, and more. But Professor Fitger cannot bring himself to merely spout the traditional platitudes, or to pretend a student is brilliant when she/he is not. The letters often go off on hilarious (but in a way sad) sidetracks about his own problems at work and in his personal life (they often intertwine), the decline of his university and of academe in general, and his impatience with the foibles of his colleagues and of students. And yet, it is clear that underneath it all, he cares about his students and others in his life, and genuinely wishes things were better for the state of academe today. A thread throughout the novel, for example, deals with his increasingly desperate, although still somewhat comic, efforts to help a bright but impoverished student; Fitger pleads with everyone he knows to provide the student with financial aid, a job, a place to stay, anything to enable him to continue studying and to survive. This novel, although with roots in the novels mentioned above, is truly original, and both entertaining and dismaying. But mostly it makes the reader, especially but not only a reader herself associated with academe, laugh, often out loud, albeit with an exasperated recognition of the truth of the situations portrayed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Children Act," by Ian McEwan

Whenever I read British author Ian McEwan’s novels, I think of my late friend C., about whom I have written in this space; she was one of my best friends, and best book friends; she died in 2011. I still miss her so much. And one thing I miss, among many others, is the way she and I would exchange recommendations and comments about books, in emails, phone calls, and yes, old-fashioned letters, across the continent and further. (After graduate school, where I met her, she lived in Pennsylvania, Japan, New York, Montreal, and Washington, DC.) She was the one who kept recommending, many years ago, that I read McEwan’s novels. At first I resisted; I hadn’t heard much about his work (this was before he became so well-known), and what I heard didn’t sound like “my type" of novels. Finally I read “Atonement,” and that was it – I was a McEwan reader. I went back and read some of his earlier novels, which I didn’t always like as much, but still appreciated. And I have read every novel he has written since then. I have liked them, although with some caveats, except for “Solar,” about which I was less enthusiastic (see my post of 4/17/10). I think McEwan is a wonderful writer who writes on varied topics, always with depth and humanity. I have just read his newest novel, “The Children Act” (Doubleday, 2014), and found that it continues in this tradition. The author takes on an important social issue and makes it come alive for the reader. The situation is this: Judge Fiona Maye, of the Family Court, must decide on a case in which a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and his parents do not want him to be treated with a blood transfusion, which is against their religious beliefs. The hospital in which young Adam is being treated has asked the court to overrule this objection, in order to most effectively treat his cancer and save his life; otherwise he will surely die. The “Children Act” is the applicable law that Fiona must interpret in this case. She listens to the arguments, and rather unconventionally, goes to visit and interview Adam in the hospital. On the one hand, she wants to honor his beliefs, but on the other hand, she feels he is too young to make such a momentous decision and give up his life. She is drawn to him, a very bright and creative young man, and they share interests in music and poetry. I will not reveal the ensuing plot developments, as she gets to know Adam better, but must maintain her judicial distance, and I of course will not say here what she decides, and how the story ends. It is a riveting story, although McEwan is too good a writer to ratchet up the suspense factor artificially. The novel is about a social issue, but we also get to know two complex and compelling characters in Fiona and Adam. Meanwhile, there is another intertwining story element: Fiona’s 30-year and seemingly very good marriage seems to be unraveling after her husband has delivered a jarring demand. Again, I will of course not reveal the resolution of this storyline. All in all, “The Children Act” is a thoughtful, beautifully written, important novel.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Cousin's Bookstore

Readers of this blog know how much I love and appreciate independent bookstores. Recently I suddenly thought about how there is actually a wonderful independent bookstore in my own extended family. I hadn’t thought before about writing about it here, because it is in Canada and I have only visited it once, some years ago. I wrote to my cousin Craig Carson, whom I rarely see because of geography, but with whom I recently connected on Facebook. Craig first worked with, and then took over this bookstore, Second Page, from his mother, my Aunt Mali Carson, some years ago when she was no longer able to continue running it. He has owned and managed it ever since; between them they have run it for 35 years. I asked him for background information about the bookstore, and he was kind enough to write up a brief history for me. Below is a slightly edited (with his permission) version of that history. It makes me happy to think of this bookstore and its family connection! And I so admire Aunt Mali and Craig for making this bookstore a community center and a beloved place for all booklovers as well as a successful business that contributes to the local economy and environment. I wish I lived nearer so I could visit it more often. Here is Craig’s story about Second Page. “In 1979, Mali Carson and her business partner Dorothy Carmichael purchased an existing used book store in Courtenay, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. Second Page was the business name chosen by my mother to reflect the second unnumbered page in a book, which is often the title page. The store was housed in one room for fifteen years until it was expanded into the vacant shop next door. I purchased Dorothy's share of the business in 2000 and Mom and I worked together for the next three years. In 2003 she had to stop working as her physical health was failing. The next three years included phone calls to Mom at the end of each workday to discuss the day at the store. In 2006 the main room in the store was renovated; I was happy that the renovation was finished in time for my mother to be pleased with the final result before she died later that same year. Soon after, I was dealing with some personal difficulties, but was able to overcome them, and I found that my experiences enriched my connections with the bookstore and its customers. My ability to communicate understanding and compassion within the store has led to many in depth conversations that have been beneficial both to myself and the customers. As mother in her way bonded with her customers, so have I have been inspired to share life changing stories with many of my customers. This is what makes the store my favorite place. It is full of humanity and compassion, respect and love. It is a gathering and sharing place open to one and to all, a safe place for those who need it, with hugs on request and occasionally tears. The store has two cats, each 10 years old, brother and sister from the same litter. Boo the Magnificent weighs in at 22 pounds and his little sister Princess Teeka, the boss of us all, is a more normal 10 pounds. Fourteen years ago the store was situated on a quiet side street. That same street today is second in activity only to the main shopping street. Now in 2014, six years after the recession, our downtown core is finally recovering from that recession and the onslaught of big box stores and their like. Second Page is proud to be an active member in the renewal and transformation of Courtenay's downtown core, as well as to provide books and a gathering place for the community."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tedious, annoying, tedious, annoying...

But I kept on reading…. Why? I really don’t know. I picked "Cutting Teeth" up from the library because I had read a decent review or at least short notice of the novel in one of the publications I read regularly, although now I can’t remember which one. There is a modicum of a story – actually several stories – to be found in Julia Fierro’s novel (St. Martin’s, 2014). It tells the story of a New York “Mommies” playgroup, the members of which decide to go for a weekend at the beach, with their spouses and children. We hear a lot about the problems of each adult, problems that are child-related, fertility-related, marriage-related, career-related, (clinical-level) anxiety-related, drug-related, petty-crime-related, and more. Furthermore, the adults seem to have little in common besides their children, and they don’t seem to really like each other or each other’s children very much. Their relationships when under the pressure of living in the same house for a long weekend soon deteriorate badly. The author does capture the way parents, perhaps especially parents in their thirties living in New York,and their ilk elsewhere, are so focused on their children’s being perfect and having perfect lives that they crumble when their children have developmental or behavioral or other issues, including, in some cases, just being "normal" instead of excelling at something or everything. Every parent can understand this, but the message is drawn out in a way that is at first annoying and then maddening. Even though some of the characters and families are facing genuinely difficult situations, it is hard to be very sympathetic because they themselves are both unsympathetic and irritating. I know that readers don't have to "like" the characters to appreciate the novel, but here their annoying and self-indulgent behavior and dialogue is just too much. Perhaps one has to be in the same situation to fully appreciate this novel? I am a parent, but of an adult daughter, and although I recognize some of these parental behaviors and attitudes, and very probably was guilty of some of them myself, I find this book’s portrayal of them, and the general whininess and unpleasantness of the characters and their interactions, almost intolerable. So I ask myself again: Why did I keep reading? And I answer again: I am not sure. Perhaps it is one of those “it’s so bad that you can’t stop watching” situations.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Lucky Break," by Esther Freud

Being an author with a very famous name inherited from a very famous person or persons must be a mixed blessing, but it does initially get one noticed. When I was browsing and picked up a novel by Esther Freud, of course I immediately wondered about her possible relationship to Sigmund Freud. It turns out she is the great-granddaughter of the great psychoanalyst, as well as the daughter of the famed painter Lucian Freud. Another reason I picked up Freud’s novel “Lucky Break” (Bloomsbury, 2011) is that when wandering through bookstores during a recent European trip, I noticed that there were many books by British authors (beyond the most famous writers such as Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, and Martin Amis) that don’t seem to make the trip across the Atlantic, or at least if they do, they do not get much publicity. I have always read the British classic novels, and have some favorite English and Irish authors (e.g., Penelope Lively, Margaret Drabble, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Alan Hollinghurst, Maggie O’Farrell, Ali Smith, Anne Enright). But the ones I have just alluded to are the less well known, at least in the U.S. So now I consciously look out for such novels. Getting back to “Lucky Break”: This is the story of a group of young people who all want to be actors, and who meet at drama school. The novel follows them into their thirties, telling of their artistic successes and failures, as well as their personal relationships. It is an ensemble novel, with four of the characters receiving the most attention from the author. It shows the difficulties of making a life in the arts, and some of the minor characters give up early on. However, apparently it is not the author’s aim to show true poverty or difficulty, in that all the characters somehow manage to maintain decently comfortable lives, albeit sometimes in less-than-ideal housing, and don’t seem to truly suffer. The characters are interesting, and their interactions are as well. There are suggestions of competition and jealousy, but these never become major themes. This is a pleasant, enjoyable, occasionally quirky, well-written novel, but not one I am likely to long remember.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

RIP Carolyn Kizer

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer's death on Thursday (10/9/14) at the age of 89 is sad. But we are fortunate that she left us her wonderful poetry. The New York Times obituary sums it up well: "Ms. Kizer's poetry is known for its wit, deep intellectualism and rigorous craftsmanship; its stylist hallmarks include impeccably calibrated rhyme, near-rhyme and meter. It is unsentimental, at times unsettling, but also luminous and warm." Her poetry is also "unmistakably feminist." Her work and life, even beyond her poetry, demonstrated her commitment to equality for women. For example, in 1998 "she and Maxine Kumin resigned as chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to protest the lack of women and minority group members in its leadership." This reminds me once again of the many, many women writers and artists who have each done what she could, in big and small ways, to fight the good fight against sexism in the arts (and elsewhere). Each such action has moved the cause of equity forward, inch by inch. Brava to this great poet both for her poetry and for her work on behalf of fairness and equity. One more thing: Carolyn Kizer lived in Sonoma (45 minutes north of San Francisco), so I feel an added connection to her.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Thunderstruck," by Elizabeth McCracken

I seem to be reading a lot of short story collections these days. The latest is “Thunderstruck” (Dial Press, 2014), by Elizabeth McCracken. I had not heard of this author until I read reviews of this new book, but it turns out that she is an established, esteemed and award-winning writer. This reminds me, yet again, of how very many good fiction writers there are, and how even readers who follow the reviews in many periodicals and other sources cannot possibly know about more than a fraction of them. This is both a good thing – how wonderful it is that there are so many gifted writers and terrific books! – and an unfortunate one – many good writers get overlooked, and readers cannot possibly keep up. In any case, I now feel I have “discovered” another terrific author of fiction. McCracken writes about very human characters, involved in very human relationships and interactions: those to do with love and families, as well as neighbors and coworkers and people randomly met as well. (Regular readers of this blog know that these are exactly the qualities I like in fiction.) The characters are very believable, yet neither they nor the things that happen to them are predictable. Which reminds me of an important element in fiction, perhaps especially in short stories: that of surprise. It is a delicate balance between making readers believe the stories and yet keeping them on edge with unexpected events and developments. McCracken manages this balance beautifully.
 
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